The moment that Captain Marvel starts working is when Brie Larson’s hero crashes in through the roof of a Blockbuster Video. If you thought that nerd culture’s recent spate of eighties nostalgia was overbearing, just you wait. The nineties are back baby. Her first reaction to it is to blow the head off a True Lies standee. The disappearance of the video store was a great blow to the growing democratisation of culture; our local one was family owned, lived in a tiny place between the One-Stop and a chippy. They had as complete a collection of the studio Ghibli films as I think it was possible to have, the proprietor was the guy who introduced us to them.
The vision of the past this film chooses to portray is a nakedly corporatist one, as cartoonish as the CGI de-aged face of supporting actor Samuel L Jackson. Yet its familiarity is cosy and welcoming, a lot of time is spent fussing over an adopted kitten, there’s a scene at kitchen counter where a loose collection of friends wash dishes after having finished their meal. When’s the last time we saw that in one of these movies?
Captain Marvel, or Vers before she adopts the name, is part of Starforce — the military force of the Kree civilisation. Left with amnesia and unexplained glowey hand-force bolt superpowers after some mysterious accident; she was saved by the alien race in order to assist them in their war against the Skrull, shapeshifting folks whose bands of militia keep encroaching on peaceful territories. Meanwhile, she’s plagued by dreams of the life she once led, a past which commander Jude Law says she must put behind her in order to fully control her abilities.
Yet all of this feels entirely superfluous until she lands on Earth. Like, the film comprehends that she needs a character but is hesitant to actually start the story until we fully understand who she is. From when she falls, nothing at all she does will surprise us. It’s a strange tension to have, someone whose power and goodness and nobility makes them dramatically inert. The power and presence of a woman who, it is eventually revealed, joined the US Air Force because she wanted to fly planes.
The leader of the Kree is played by Annette Bening, who, like wow, Annette Bening. She’s great. The leader of the Skrull is Ben Mendolsohn and I have literally the same reaction. I think these folks are the ones who are supposed to surprise us, both get to try on a few personas across the running time in order to exhibit their range, and whenever we’re getting surprised it’ll be at something one of them do. But they’re on the outskirts, and their exceptionalism means little when we barely get to spend time with them.
It’s an odd line that the film is walking. Wanting to be both a prequel and not a prequel at all. Endgame comes out in a month and you can feel the way that this builds to the mid-credits scene. The final cue of the film builds neatly into Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme, like it just can’t help itself. While being set in the past makes it impervious to a lot of the franchise’s more tedious attempts at worldbuilding, it allows them to make it as much of a Nick Fury origin story as the Captain’s.
Jackson swept into the franchise in a trench coat and an eyepatch to ready to spout exposition. They didn’t bother to give him a character because he is fucking Sam L. Now we see him scared, confused, nervous, he uses some Hackers type espionage to escape a holding cell. It’s eye-opening kinda, while Marvel has been so obsessed with its own mythologisation this is the shit we’ve been missing? For all the origin stories we’ve sat through, this one really nails when it means to become.
Everyone in this film desperately is searching for purpose, meaning, identity. When finally its leads are allowed to sit down and eat together they finally get a chance to define for each other what that may look like. There’s a couple whole conversations here about the determinism of names and what it means to be able to choose your own. Even the most eyerolling nudge (why are The Avengers called that?) deliberately flows from the same source. So why do the first twenty or so minutes gotta be so bad?
Like, a bad scene with Law, a bad scene with Bening, a bad action setpiece on a bad alien planet. And it’s all so deathly serious. For its audience of millennials it wants to evoke the warm cosy feelings of a safe corporatist nineties because safety and family are its cares. If eighties nostalgia was the longing to be an older kid, this wants us to wanna be young again. Happier, simpler, less questioning. Then the Disney monopoly can make this with the willing support of the US military and we can just accept it.
Ironic that this is a film with Empire on its mind. Marvel’s first film led by a woman is I guess supposed to be a feminist statement, but it is far from a radical one. That image we see in the trailer, the times a woman stood up, unbowed over the course of her life was a direct lift from the film. But the focus too narrow: it is enough, we are told, that she stands, regardless of what she stands against.
The choice to make the right decision is an easy one when you’re so much stronger than everyone else. Of course the right decisions are made here. Brie Larson is fantastically cast as the lead, even when she’s being given real little she imbues her character with warmth and this active irrepressible urge to be taken seriously by anyone. A frustration when we’ve already seen glimpses of constructive female solidarity in the life that she lost. The way she starts to relax into her friends over the course of the film.
Then the bad guy from the first Guardians of the Galaxy turns up and it’s like, yeah, sure, whatever. I’ll always dislike how in these films the intimacy of their smaller moments can never be matched by the action. Here it’s yet more space stuff and it all feels very impersonal. The best fight happens on the LA transit system, the best suspense found in a poorly lit records room. There’s a tactility to these scenes and places, that disappears when Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Chan turn up waving about their glowing swords, underdeveloped agents of a purposefully oblique enemy.
In these films it is important that anything could, at some point, have the possibility of meaning anything. It’s what makes them so fun to participate in, watch around, speculate over. It gets exhausting though, especially when the things on their mind are actually real. ‘Girl-power’ can’t be specific when you want the audience to watch the next episode that will truly reveal what it is. So we get platitudes, a capitalist friendly version of what feminism could be couched within the cosy confines of a past they’d prefer us to remember.
I’m so tired.
There is a cute cat though.
Captain Marvel is currently screening in UK cinemas.